STEM Disconnect Leaves Women, Minorities Behind

“To be competitive, we can’t ignore two thirds of our future workforce,” says top woman engineer.

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With 14 million people unemployed but 3 million STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math—jobs sitting vacant, it's clear there is a disconnect between skill and need, one that can't be filled solely with white men or engineers from India.

But half of the students currently graduating with engineering degrees in the United States are white men, while only 18 percent are women and even fewer are minorities, Betty Shanahan, CEO of the Society of Women Engineers, said Thursday at the U.S. News Stem Summit 2012.

"To be competitive, we can't ignore two thirds of our future workforce," Shanahan said.

"Women drop out of engineering programs with higher average grades than the men who stay in engineering programs," she added. "In a white male-dominated environment … they think there's something wrong with them, but there is something wrong with the environment."

[Find out how college women can motivate high school girls interested in STEM.]

To encourage young women and minority students to power through not just high school but challenging STEM degree fields in college, employers and educators need to let go of their "best and brightest" mantra and let students know it is OK to struggle, she said. A scientist with a C in physics is still a scientist, after all.

"We need to celebrate completion as much as achievement," said Peter Cunningham, assistant secretary for communication at the U.S. Department of Education.

To get young women and minority students started on the STEM path, stakeholders need to show students STEM is cool, fun, and pays well, Cunningham added.

STEM also needs to speak their language, both literally and figuratively. For some girls, that may mean focusing on humanitarian solutions over robots, said Shanahan with the Society of Women Engineers. For other students it may mean using materials in their native language.

While there are an abundance of STEM materials designed to reach minority students, educators could benefit from some one-stop shopping for STEM teaching resources, said teachers at the summit.

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